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a16: NYTimes.com Article: Haitian Commandos Attack Palace Before Being Routed (fwd)
Haitian Commandos Attack Palace Before Being Routed
December 18, 2001
By DAVID GONZALEZ
MIAMI, Dec. 17 - Commandos apparently intent on ousting the
government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti
stormed the presidential palace early this morning and
battled the police for several hours before being routed,
Haitian officials said.
Mr. Aristide and his family were not in the palace at the
time, officials said, but safe at his home in the Port-
au-Prince suburb of Tabarre.
But the assault on the palace drew Mr. Aristide's
machete-wielding supporters onto the streets in vengeful
protest, according to diplomats, witnesses and news
reports. The crowds burned tires and ransacked, set fire to
or threatened radio stations and the offices of opposition
groups in Port-au-Prince, the capital, and in other parts
of the impoverished nation, the reports said.
Seven people, including two police officers and one of the
gunmen, died in the violence, which occurred a year and a
day after Mr. Aristide was returned to power in an election
boycotted by the opposition and international observers.
Mr. Aristide and his opponents are deadlocked over other
elections in May 2000 that handed the president's party
almost complete power, and some diplomats voiced fears that
today's events would spawn more violence against the
Mr. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest whose first
term as Haiti's first democratically elected president was
cut short by a 1991 coup that ended with a United States-
led invasion in 1994, urged peaceful vigilance in a
midafternoon address to the nation. "Walk straight on the
road to democracy," he said. "We have thwarted the coup,
but it's not all over. The Haitian people will not have to
live in hiding ever again."
American diplomats would not characterize the attacks.
"We don't have enough information to piece together what
has happened," a State Department official said. "We are
urging the people of Haiti to remain calm and we are urging
the government to restore and maintain order."
The United States and European governments have insisted
that Mr. Aristide's Lavalas Family party and the opposition
resolve their impasse over the elections before
international financial institutions release more than $500
million in desperately needed aid.
The events today "underscore the importance of getting an
agreement," said Luigi Einaudi, the assistant secretary
general of the Organization of American States and the lead
negotiator in talks on the contested elections. "Otherwise,
all the democratic and semidemocratic forces in Haiti are
simply going to be left behind. The extremes have the
initiative. The issue is: can reason be made to prevail
over passion to give the place a chance once again?"
Haitian officials said the palace clash began around 2 a.m.
when commandos in several pickup trucks stormed the palace,
tossed a grenade and began shooting automatic weapons.
Authorities said the gunmen wore the khaki uniforms of
Haiti's army, which was disbanded in the mid-1990's, and
first tried unsuccessfully to enter the National
Inside the palace, the intruders were said to have
commandeered its radio system. Officials said two police
officers and one attacker were killed in the ensuing
Police officers in combat gear arrived in an armored
vehicle and stormed the wing of the palace seized by the
attackers, government officials said.
The police arrested seven attackers whose affiliations were
unknown. Several others escaped, shooting and killing two
passers-by as they sped away, officials said.
"This is an attempted coup d'etat," said Jacques Maurice, a
spokesman for the National Palace. "This is not a staged
News reports from the capital said that Haitian officials
suspected that the commandos were led by Guy Philippe, a
former police official who was dismissed last year amid
suspicions that he was planning a coup. Mr. Philippe is
said to have called several news organizations today to say
he was not in Haiti but in the neighboring Dominican
Some diplomats, analysts and opposition sympathizers went
so far as to suggest that Lavalas had staged the palace
attack to justify a crackdown on opponents.
"There are questions about how real this is," said one
diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everyone
knows that Aristide and his family do not live at the
palace, so he is not there at night."
"Nobody is clear if this is a real coup," the diplomat
said. "But the consequences are real."
All morning, throngs of the impoverished masses who are Mr.
Aristide's political base gathered outside the palace
chanting, "We'll never accept another coup d'etat." The
Reuters news agency said a suspected collaborator was
One mob burned down the home of Gérard Pierre-Charles, an
opposition leader, witnesses said, while the police refused
to intervene. Mr. Pierre-Charles was not there.
Similar attacks were reported in other parts of the
country. Several radio stations also received threats, and
a few went off the air.
One diplomat with long experience of Haiti said the
government must quickly dispel doubts. "If this is a real
coup attempt, they ought to present the evidence and defend
themselves immediately," said the diplomat, who spoke on
condition of anonymity. "If they do it simply with
accusations, the counteraccusation that it was a self-coup
will simply gain space."
Earlier this month, a radio journalist was killed by people
said to be Lavalas supporters, while authorities have yet
to take action against a ruling party senator linked to
last year's murder of another popular commentator.
There had also been reports of demonstrations against Mr.
Aristide by people dissatisfied because he has been unable
to deliver on his campaign slogan of "peace in the belly,
peace in the head."
Talks aimed at ending the political stalemate between
Lavalas and the loose coalition known as Democratic
Convergence have continued in fits and starts since the
Lavalas has agreed to redo the election of seven senators
who won office on wrong vote tallies, to shorten the term
of some other legislators and to form a new electoral
council. But the opposition contests Mr. Aristide's very
legitimacy. Diplomats and analysts say that the president
understands the need for an opposition, but that
hard-liners in his party have prevailed.
Haitian officials say their ability to govern has been
hampered by the delay in releasing international aid, which
they need to improve abysmal standards in health care,
sanitation and infrastructure.
In the meantime, increasing numbers of Haitian refugees
have packed themselves into rickety boats in desperate
attempts to reach the Bahamas or Florida, sometimes with
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